Partners in love and business [Global Times]
(Global Times Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Turning a romantic partnership into a commercial one is a gamble, but the potential rewards are enticing. Photo: IC
They say you should never mix work with romance, but scores of Chinese entrepreneurial couples have proven that business and marriage can go hand in hand. Ma Yun, former chairman of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, turned the company established in 1995 into a billion-dollar empire with the help of wife and fellow co-founder Zhang Ying. The same year IT magnate Li Yanhong teamed up with wife Ma Dongming to found Baidu, China's leading search engine. In 1999, Li Guoqing launched online bookstore Dangdang with wife Yu Yu after she had been inspired by competitor Amazon while studying in the US. But it isn't all smooth sailing for spouses who go into business together. Relationships can be strained for partners who invest their time and savings into a venture that isn't assured of success in the cutthroat corporate world. The failure of a business launched by a couple can sometimes precede the breakdown of their marriage.Li Ruofan, 41, knows how much of a struggle it can be for married entrepreneurs to separate their personal relationship from business affairs. Li and her husband Zhuang Songlie are co-founders of Sculpting in Time, a cafe chain with 36 outlets in 14 cities nationwide in 1997. Li is also the director of Easy Style, a clothing and homewares chain with stores in Beijing and Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, that was launched in 2006. "The most common problem was that my husband would bluntly point out things he disagreed with to me. His attitude toward me was upsetting, especially because he was kind and tolerant to our employees," Li said of their early problems after going into business."When talking about business, we had objective and rational attitudes. Nevertheless, the pressure that we felt at work would sometimes boil over in emotional, aggressive arguments at home."
Zhuang Songlie and Li Ruofan, co-founders of cafe chain Sculpting in Time. Photo: Courtesy of Sculpting in Time
Surviving the grindLi met Zhuang in 1996 during a trip to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region while both were students, she at the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology and he at the Beijing Film Academy. "There was a flood and we had to transfer to another train. It was a romantic start. We married straight after we graduated," Li recalled. Despite neither majoring in business, Zhuang convinced Li to join him in opening their first cafe in a small hutong near Peking University. "I think [Zhuang's] upbringing in Taiwan influenced him a lot. He was always more creative than me, so he was in charge of designing our cafe's interior and logo. I took charge of administration affairs, such as registering the company and hiring staff," said Li.But the couple's honeymoon period of owning their first business soon came to an abrupt end. "We found that business matters lingered on our minds when we were at home. We were constantly bombarded by trivial affairs during the day that would escalate into arguments. Gradually, our initial excitement faded away," she said. Despite enduring a "vicious cycle of quarrels," Li noted one advantage of going into business with a spouse is that you "back each other wholeheartedly" as business partners. Witnessing their relationship deteriorate as their cafe chain grew, Li and Zhuang took action in 2006 to save their marriage. Li withdrew as a partner of Sculpting in Time and launched Easy Style on her own. "We both have our own businesses now and don't get involved in each other's work. We even consult each other when planning to open a new store to ensure they are in the same location," she said.
American Mark Huetsch and Chinese girlfriend Wang Liang, co-founders of bakery chain Pantry's Best. Photo: Courtesy of Pantry's Best
Enjoying sweet successA year after launching online pastry delivery service Pie House in 2009, American Mark Huetsch and his partner Wang Liang opened their brick-and-mortar shop Pantry's Best near the north gate of Ritan Park, Chaoyang district. "While I was studying at Peking University in 2004, I noticed there was a lack of options for people who wanted to eat Western-style desserts. The lack was particularly poignant to me because I have a bit of a sweet tooth and have been baking since I was a little kid," said Huetsch, 29. Like many "accidental entrepreneurs," Huetsch initially aspired for a different career path after majoring in engineering at Stanford University. But as a keen baker, he soon found his fingers in another pie after toying with the idea of starting his own pastry shop with girlfriend Wang, who he said was "thankfully willing to help." Despite its short history, Pantry's Best has enjoyed a steady rise. In 2011, it was awarded Best Bakery by the Chinese-language edition of Time Out Beijing. The business opened its first store in Shanghai in 2012, with a second in the city expected to open later this year. Wang, a 31-year-old Beijing native, said running a business has strengthened their relationship. "We're both pretty open and unrestricted about talking about money. That's how you have to be in a business context, because you always have to be on the same page about what makes sense in terms of revenue and expenditure," she said. "We're used to making financial decisions together daily, so that type of communication is pretty much second nature to us now."Huetsch and Wang awake at 4 am to bake before spending the rest of the day serving customers and delivering their pastries around town. The tiring regime once led them to consider other ways to make money, but the duo receives plenty of motivation from appreciative customers. "It really helps keep our spirits up," said Huetsch. "Every week we print out a bunch of the nice things we hear people say about us and show them to our staff so they can understand their work really does have a positive influence on people's lives."One of the secrets to maintaining a harmonious business and personal relationship is taking time to indulge in common interests away from work, said Wang. "When something is stressing one of us out, it's likely also stressing the other one out as well. Sometimes it can be hard for us to balance each other's moods out after a particularly challenging day. We work hard to find time to focus on things other than work together," she said.
Australian Shannon Bufton and Chinese wife Zhao Liman, co-founders of Serk Cycling. Photo: Courtesy of Serk Cycling
Building a profitable cycle Owners of Serk Cycling Shannon Bufton and Zhao Liman sought to change the landscape of Beijing bike shops when they launched their business that combines sales and rental of bikes with service of beer and coffee in 2012. The business recently closed its Beixinqiao store due to skyrocketing rent, but the couple plans to reopen at the Linked Hybrid building complex in Chaoyang district on March 29. "We began our business by organizing the NGO Smarter Than Car to promote cycling culture for one year, but it was difficult to get funding," said Zhao, 43, who formerly worked with Fortune-500 companies in marketing and strategic analysis roles. "The most significant thing is that we're both willing to strive for the same dream."The couple, who has been married for two years, met at a dinner party in 2006 through a mutual friend. Their courtship faced hurdles early on when Bufton, from Australia, and Zhao relocated to Dubai for work. "We planned to stay there for five years, but the financial crisis happened. A lot of jobs disappeared, so we didn't have any money," recalled the 37-year-old Melbourne native. "It was the spur for us to rethink our future."Aspiring to be their own boss, the couple decided to open a bike shop. "Commuting by bikes is a global trend. We distinguished our shop from other traditional ones by innovative interior designs and events," said Bufton. Serk Cycling's unique decor at its Beixinqiao store, which included bikes suspended from the store's ceiling, won it fame in May 2013 when it was ranked among Ten of the World's Coolest Bike Shops by Australian cycling website Cycling Tips."Even though we love to emphasize benefits of the urban cycling culture, we still have to be concerned about turning a profit," Zhao said, adding the store also serves as a hub for weekend rides, film screenings and workshops run by famous cycling photographers.Disappointed by the closure of their Beixinqiao store, Bufton arranged a surprise party for Zhao to lift her spirits. "I was touched by what he did. He held the party at a resort in Huairou district that was attended by our friends," Zhao said. The duo has delivered speeches about cycling in Vienna and Tokyo that Bufton said signifies "reward of our hard work.""My academic research about cycling culture in Beijing doesn't help our business, but my efforts can attract some customers to have significant talks," he said.
Going into business with a spouseProsGreater trust: Going into business with a stranger or friend can be risky, but with a spouse you can have greater confidence.Shared goals: Both spouses are likely to have the same vision and be committed to working together for the long haul to realize their dream.Deeper understanding: Both spouses will be more understanding of each other outside of work knowing the pressures they face together on the job. Greater chance of fidelity: The only office romance will be between you as a couple if you work alongside each other.Speedier decisions: Gaining consensus on major issues is easier given a couple's shared interests.Cons Trouble separating work from romance: Business matters can hijack a relationship and blur the lines between work and love.Compromising of goals: Goals you might have for a business if launched individually can be changed when a spouse comes on board and shares their vision. Loss of love: Being with each other at work and at home can kill the romance and lead you to become sick of each other. Lack of creativity: Common interests that make you compatible as a couple can limit your scope of innovation as business partners.Backing out can be difficult: If your company is about to crash and burn, cutting your losses and splitting as a business partner is almost impossible.
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